12/26/2006, 00.00
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Entrusting to Mary all the martyrs and the persecuted for the Gospel, Pope says

On the Feast Day of Saint Stephen, the first martyr of the faith, Benedict XVI remembers Catholics in China, who are faithful to the See of Peter even in their suffering. Today as in the past martyrdom elicits “spiritual enthusiasm” and “new Christians”.

Vatican City (AsiaNews) – With an indirect reference to the Church in China (and in part to the Church in Vietnam), the Pope today expressed his “spiritual closeness” to “those Catholics who maintain their loyalty to the See of Peter without making compromises, sometimes at the cost of great suffering”.

It is especially in China that the relationship with the Pope is a reason for persecution by the government and the patriotic associations that want to set up a national church, separate from the Pope.

A few weeks ago, China saw a bishop’s ordination without the Holy See’s permission. For the Vatican such ordinations are “a serious violation of freedom of religion”.

Benedict XVI entrusted Chinese Catholics and all those who are persecuted to Mary, Mother of Jesus, “who experienced the joy of the birth and the torment of the death of her Divine Son”.

He said that “the entire Church admires their example and is praying that they may have the strength to persevere, knowing that their tribulations are a source of victory even though that may seem now to be a failure”.

Every year 150,000 adults are baptised in China. Many do so inspired by the great example provided by those who are persecuted and defy the desire for calm and acquiescent compromise.

The Pope spoke about those who are persecuted in today’s Angelus which comes on the feast Day of Saint Stephen, first martyr in the history of the Church, whose celebration follows right after the joyful solemnity of Christmas.

“At a first glance,” the Pontiff said, “the association of the memory of the ‘Protomartyr’ to that of the birth of the Redeemer can be surprising because of the contrast between the peace and joy of Bethlehem and the tragedy of Stephen, stoned to death in Jerusalem during the first persecution against the nascent Church. In reality, the apparent disparity disappears if we consider in greater depth the mystery of Christmas. The Baby Jesus, who lies in the manger, is God’s only son who became man. He shall save human kind by dying on the Cross. We now see him in his infancy. After his crucifixion we see him his sepulchre. It is no accident that Christmas iconography sometimes represents the divine newly-born babe on top of a small sarcophagus to show that the Redeemer was born to die and give his life for the redemption of all. Saint Stephen was the first one to follow Christ on the path of martyrdom. Like the divine Teacher, he died forgiving his killers and praying for them (cf Acts 7, 60)”.

Benedict XVI then said that within the Church martyrdom is not a reason to be sad but one of “spiritual enthusiasm”.”
”In the first four centuries of Christianity,” he said, “all the venerated saints of the Church were martyrs. It is an innumerable group that the liturgy calls martyrum candidatus exercitus, the ‘candid crowd of martyrs’. Their death did not strike fear or cause sadness but spiritual enthusiasm amongst new Christians. For believers, the day of death and even more so they day of martyrdom is not the end of everything but rather a “transition” to eternal life; it is the day of one’s final birth, in Latin one’s dies natalis. It is understandable that there is a link between Christ’s and Saint Stephen ‘dies natalis’. If Jesus had not come to earth, men could not be born to the Heaven. Christ was born so that we may be ‘reborn’!”

At the end of the Angelus prayer Benedict XVI repeated his best wishes of a Merry Christmas in various languages.

At least 15,000 people were gathered in the square.

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